Navigating the Brackish Waters of “Sound Quality”

posted in: Letters & Spiels | 0

Sound recording and reproduction has long been a field where the objective and subjective coexist and collide in symbiosis; it’s art and physics combined amorphously and in indeterminate proportion. The fidelity we really seek, even if subconsciously, is not fidelity to numbers and theorems, but rather to feelings and evocations.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that in addition to such objective measurables as dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, total harmonic distortion, and bandwidth, our discourse may occasionally be peppered with subjective descriptors like “congested,” “fat,” “round,” “aggressive,” “etched,” and “flattering.” While the more objectivist among us are predictably annoyed by the harder-to-quantify “wine terms,” we must at a minimum acknowledge the elusiveness of trying to express in purely scientific language the gamut of feelings and emotions that can be aroused through sound. We also must admit that it would be supremely unwise to, for sake of objectivism alone, downplay the transcendent feelings our work aspires to stir in (or transmit intact to) the listener. That would be missing the point.

So we’re stuck with the nebulously-defined subjective terms, it appears, for the time being—and this isn’t all bad. When dealing with aesthetics or working even at the fringes of creative art, challenges to our more mundane empiricist nature are valuable—even essential. Although it’s natural to grow weary of oft-regurgitated “punchy and warm” marketing tropes, it is self-defeating to allow frustration with cliché to drive us into rhetorical isolation from the very emotional, artistic essence that our work seeks to capture.

The empiricist’s widespread discomfort with flowery parlance in audio has unfortunately brought about the tacit acceptance of an entirely more insidious linguistic custom: pseudo-objective terminology. Just as nebulous as the vaguest subjective language, the only apparent purpose of pseudo-intellectual jargonism is to, without added depth, make the speaker seem to the uninitiated to be more learned and trustworthy. While one of the most common offenses—the wholly-invented concept of “audio quality”—is less sensual and poetic than describing a sound as “fat”, it’s neither as evocative nor a whit more quantifiable; it has even less communicative value. Terms like “sound quality” and the recently-fashionable “sonics” offer nothing more than a vague notion of goodness or badness while seeming only to sound a bit less fatuous.

Even the age-old concept of “fidelity” is but a loose catch-all which seems to evoke the nebulous aggregation of any and all established criteria—an aggregation that few explicitly acknowledge requires a great degree of subjectivity with regard to which computable qualities are most important. In other words, there is no point at which something becomes objectively “high fidelity”, so one might as well just say “sounds pretty good to me!”

When we do isolate meaningful measurable parameters, they can still be clumsily used in a way that misleads. For example, using “fast” or “high slew rate” as a more-credible-sounding stand-in for “punchy” is no more meaningful unless that specific parameter has been properly tested, you’re qualified to understand and cite its impact, and you’re confident that your intended audience is qualified to understand and intuit its effect.

The biggest obstacle to clear communication in the sound recording and reproduction arts isn’t imprecise, subjective language—it’s pseudo-intellectualism. We live and work in the estuary between art and science. Let’s challenge ourselves to be comfortable in our natural, brackish habitat and dispense with the need to feel or seem exclusively, rigorously high-minded. If we’re honest about our work and goals, it can be perfectly appropriate for a touch of synesthesia to creep into our lexicon. If we’re reaching too far for language to describe a feeling we’re searching for or have achieved, it need not represent a failing—it’s precisely when art eludes easy description that it begins to become transcendent.

Brad Williams, September 13, 2014.

Brad Allen Williams is an up-and-coming producer, guitarist, songwriter, arranger, mixer, and multi-instrumentalist living in Brooklyn, NY. Brad has worked with a wide variety of artists including José James, Kris Bowers, Tyshawn Sorey, Cory Henry, Laura Izibor, Sasha Allen, Blessing Offor, and a long list of others. In his spare time, he builds recording and musical equipment. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of North Texas and a Master of Music degree from William Paterson University.